5 Story Questions to consider

The process of developing a story from a basic idea is not easy. When I first started writing fiction, I thought it was just a matter of discovering the plot events in the story – an outline. But it’s more complex than that. Before starting a writing project you need to understand the story dynamics and whether the story is going to appeal to your target reader.

If you look on the internet there are dozens of articles about the type of questions an author should consider before commencing a project. One of the best is the 35 questions by the Art of Story, which link to the 24 key plot points. This is a great set of plot points when you know the working outline of your story. But there is a process before this, which is all about should I write this story at all and will it appeal to my target readers?

To decide whether a project is viable or not I have developed five key questions. I don’t claim any originality to them. To some writers they may seem obvious and instinctive. However, if you’re a new writer you mind find them helpful.

1. What is the Big Story Idea that will attract your target reader?

There are three core elements to a story: setting, character, and central conflict. At least one of these core elements should be new, or at least fresh and intriguing to a potential reader.

For example, the setting could be any time, place or culture and there is a myriad of possible choices. A school for wizards is a great idea, but it’s already been done. A vampire romance isn’t new, but if it is set in ancient roman times then it might be sufficiently distinct to pique the curiosity of the reader.

Changing the main character in a mystery suspense might also work. We’ve had scruffy detectives like Colombo, old lady detectives as in Murder She Wrote, and the alcoholics as in the noir genre. But a vampire detective trying to quit his addiction to blood for example might be sufficiently different to pique the interest of the reader.

Finding a unique central conflict for the big story idea may prove even more difficult. Sometimes turning and existing story line upside down might work. For example, what if humans were the alien invaders of a planet. No. That’s already been done — Avatar.

Finding your big story idea is by no means easy. Sometimes free writing for ten minutes might work. Just write continuously about anything that comes into you head, but don’t try to edit or stop writing. You will find that you will write a lot of garbage, but sometimes within that garbage you will find a gem that can be your big idea and one of your core elements. I love the power of a computer, but sometimes paper and pen are a better medium for creative thinking.

2. Who is the main character and what is it about them that makes them uniquely fit the story, and connect with reader?

I’ve already mentioned that the choice of main character is one of the three core elements. The main character is the conduit through which you connect with the reader. If you can change the main character without changing the story you probably haven’t chosen the right main character. Character is about their personality, their beliefs, desires, hopes and fears. It’s about how they act and react to those about them. Great characters also have human frailties, quirks and sometimes special skills.

Think about some of the great movie characters and what makes them uniquely suited to their role — Indiana Jones, Rocky, Katnis, Captain Sparrow. Great characters make great movies.

The character you choose should be the only one that meets the needs of the story you want to tell.

3. What is the central conflict all about, and does it matter to the main character and reader?

All stories are about a main character or characters pursuing a difficult objective to deal with a challenging problem, opportunity or threat that comes into their lives, and struggling with it. The consequence of failure should be dire – life and death in a literal or figurative sense. Otherwise why should the reader care?

Finding a new type of central conflict is not easy. Most natural disasters, terrorist acts, heists, kidnapping, and military actions have already been done. The same is true with different romance stories, crimes and mysteries. But the plotline doesn’t have to be entirely new if you can find some element that distinguishes it from the rest. As one movie mogul once said ‘give me the same stories but different’.

4. What does the main character or characters do about the problem, opportunity or threat and why doesn’t it work?

All stories are about a main characters that struggles to achieve and objective against the odds. One or more failures along the way are inevitable to test their commitment. The forces against them must seem insurmountable. So what, or who are these forces against them and why are they so resolute?

If a quest or problem is easily solved then the reader will soon lose interest. So a key element in maintaining the tension in a story is the antagonistic elements that stand in the way of the main character. Super heroes need super villains. What is Batman without Joker — just an unpaid freelance cop. But not all stories have human antagonists.

5. How does the story end and is it emotionally fulfilling?

The ending is all about the emotional pay-off of the story. It can be sad, as in a tragedy, happy-ever-after as in most romance stories, or karmic. It should fit the tone of the story and the emotional response the reader expects. But it shouldn’t be too predictable or at least some element should unexpected.

Once you have all the key elements of the story, setting, character and central conflict you can start to plan your story. Different writers plan in different ways. Some just following along behind the main character as they pursue their objectives (pantsers), while others will plot out the key plot points (plotters). But both types of writer need to fully understand the dynamics of the story.

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